Left-behind communities out in the cold without publicly funded housing legal advice

More than half local authorities in England and Wales have no publicly funded legal advice for housing, the Law Society said as it published analysis revealing catastrophic ‘legal aid deserts’ across the country.

A new interactive map shows the vanishing number of providers in each local authority area – 184 have no such service and a further 81 have just one provider.

Whole counties are without any housing legal aid – Suffolk, for instance – while other areas have just one provider. In Cornwall, one law firm serves a population of over half a million spread over 1,300 square miles.

“People facing homelessness or trying to challenge a rogue landlord increasingly can’t get the expert legal advice they desperately need,” Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said.

“More than 21 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes struggling to access the legal advice they are entitled to when they are at their most vulnerable.

“Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently – if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county they might as well be on Mars.”

Having just one housing legal aid provider in a large area can result in a range of problems:

  • Anyone on an income low enough to qualify for legal aid, let alone in rent arrears, is unlikely to be able to afford to travel a great distance to see a solicitor.
  • Working people, families and anyone with dependants may have serious logistical challenges if they have to travel across a county to find a provider, particularly in rural areas with patchy public transport.
  • One firm covering a large area may not have capacity to provide advice to all those who need it.
  • A single provider may have to decline clients due to a conflict of interest, because one law firm cannot represent both a tenant and their landlord.
  • A conflict can also arise if the firm has been acting for the landlord on another issue, such as a family matter. This would mean the firm would not be able to act for the tenant.

The fees government pays for legal aid provision have not increased since 1998-99, equating to a 41% real-terms reduction. On top of this, fees were cut by a further 10% in 2011.

Catastrophically low rates of pay are forcing legal professionals across the country to withdraw from providing legal aid as the work is not economically viable for small businesses like solicitor firms.

“Homelessness is devastating for anyone who experiences or is at risk of it,” Christina Blacklaws said.

“There is no longer legal aid for early advice, meaning many people can only get help when their situation is critical.

“The only housing issues still in scope are homelessness, harassment, eviction due to rent arrears and disrepair that is so bad it is hazardous to occupants’ health.

“The government must ensure everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can actually get it when they so desperately need it. Legal rights are meaningless if people can’t enforce them.”

 

Credit: Harriet Beaumont | The Law Society

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